Thank The Passer: Defining Your Team’s Culture

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As a fan of the game and even more so as a coach, I believe there are very few acceptable responses after a made basket.

Further, to a special player, there’s really only one winning habit after a score: an immediate and automated reaction focused on the next best action. Coach Don Meyer called this developing an “N.B.A. Mentality”.

Thank The Passer

Here’s my exception to the rule: taking an 1/8 of a second to point-to-the-passer.

There are lot of post-score rituals that I abhor (think: an “end zone” dance, the pounding of one’s chest, a King Kong roar, the “I’m too strong” flex off, etc.). Thanking-the-passer is not one of them. In fact, I think this simple split second habit pays *huge* dividends for players and teams focused on winning basketball games.

How Did It All Start?

In the 60’s and 70’s a conversation between Dean Smith and John Wooden triggered a basketball tradition of generosity and unselfishness. The goal was to initiate an overt gesture to build a team culture of acknowledgement and togetherness. In the end, Coach Smith asked players on his North Carolina men’s basketball teams to recognize the unselfish act of a teammate passing them the ball.

It became a team rule. In practices, games, practices and even during the Tar Heel basketball camps, the man who scored had to point-to-the-passer. Over time, Coach Smith went even further: If you got a great pass and missed a layup, you still thanked the passer. If a player received a great pass and was fouled on a layup and got two free throws, he was still supposed to thank-the-passer with a point of the finger. And, if a great screen led to the score, you needed to point-to-the-screener too(…!).


Some might think that’s overkill; however, in the mind of two of the most successful coaches of all time, it was an imperative.

I had the fortune of working with Vince Carter, a UNC alum, while he was a member of the Toronto Raptors in the 2000’s. I asked Vince how they instilled and enforced this ritual. He said, Coach modeled it during practices. The assistants did the same—even during film sessions. And, ultimately, he believed so fervently in thanking the passer, he would put the entire basketball team on the line to run sprints if someone failed to point-to-the-passer.


This simple split second gesture has now turned out to be a universal “thank you” in basketball worldwide. And, I love it.

Let Me Take This A Step Further…

We’re now living in a 140 character world. And, with that, it’s easy to pawn off someone else’s idea as your own.

Some think a cursory or perfunctory use of quotation marks (“…”) will suffice in showing that the idea is not their own. It doesn’t.

Special players and special people understand the value of putting others in the spotlight. They go out of their way to thank-the-passer. Not doing so rubs them the wrong way. It offends their internal compass that points them toward the right thing to do. It feels selfish and deceitful.

The next time you use share that oh-so-obvious thought from John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein or John Wooden, remember that the only acceptable reaction is to THANK-THE-PASSER.

[ If you can’t fit it all into 140 characters, then Twit Longer or don’t tweet it at all.]

Let’s learn from the timeless wisdom of Dean Smith who called pointing-to-the-passer the “coach’s assist”.

Some traditions are worth passing on through the ages. This is one of them.


What traditions have you created or used within your program to build togetherness?

BTW – If you know someone who fails to put others in the spotlight when tweeting, dish out an assist and send ’em this post.

Plagiarize constructive behaviours and actions that come from another person’s wisdom, not their words and phrases.

—my twist off of @HowToBeADad

UPDATE: This post was so positively received that so many of you began pointing-to-the-passer on Twitter using the hashtag #IGotThatFromCoachWooden. It was a beautiful thing to join in on the flurry of tweets in appreciation of Coach John Wooden. I thought I’d #ThankThePasser and put a bunch of those messages in the spotlight:

— via @CoachJClarke: “It’s not so important who starts the game but who finishes it.”

— via @marlenezeug: “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”

— via @coachnoonan: “So I must try once more and even better than before.”

— via @lyndshoops: “The best thing a father can do for his kids is love thy mother.”

— via @bengland11: “You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”

— via @dena10: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

— via @gym_momentum: “An athlete must have character, not be one.”

— via @jkalin10: “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”

Check out the rest of the #IGotThatFromCoachWooden quotes or share your favourite.